Lauren Rabaino

Spanos Theatre filled up with a variety of Poly students and community members, as well as the women’s basketball team and members of the track, golf and swimming teams on Thursday afternoon, all to see world-renowned basketball star, businesswoman and motivational speaker Jennifer Azzi

Azzi spoke about “the competitive edge” as part of the College of Business’ Professional Development Speaker Series.

World-renowned basketball star, businesswoman and motivational speaker Jennifer Azzi spoke Thursday about “the competitive edge” in Spanos Theatre as part of the College of Business’ Professional Development Speaker Series.

To begin her speech, Azzi asked the crowd: “The leadership edge; what does that mean to you?”

She then asked people to raise their hand if they thought they were leaders. When she heard crickets instead of swift movements from the crowd, she retorted, “Everybody raise your hand really high, because you’re all leaders.”

Azzi said that if anyone has anything positive to bring to any situation, then they are leading.

The next question posed to the crowd was “What did you want to be when you grow up?”

Several ideas bounced around the auditorium.

“Astronaut,” came from the back.

“Doctor,” from the left.

“Manicurist,” from the front.

“I wanted to be the president,” said Sparkle Anderson, point guard for the women’s basketball team.

“That is great. Are you still interested in doing that?” Azzi said in all seriousness.

She then went on to explain that when she was five, she was set on being a forest ranger. But during career day in elementary school, while all her classmates and parents were watching, she said she wanted to be a nurse.

After the presentation, her mother asked her when she changed her mind. She said to her mother, “You and I both know that girls can’t be forest rangers.”

Her mother stopped her and said, “I don’t want to ever hear you say anything like that again. You can do and become anything that is in your heart.”

To this day, Azzi said that statement was the greatest gift in her life: knowing the power of what’s inside, and the fact that she could be what she wanted to be and not what others wanted.

Azzi moved on from forestry and decided she wanted “to be a really good basketball player.” Yet she realized this was a strange concept as a girl growing up in the ’70s.

Along with playing basketball, she aspired to be an Olympian. In Azzi’s case, her dreams were not unattainable and she came to a realization about success.

“There are parallels between leaders in sports and championship teams and champions in business,” she said.

Azzi urged people in the audience to “write down all the skills that you have as an athlete and save them because one day when you enter the business world, all of those strengths are going to come in very handy.”

Azzi said that in her life experience she has realized that there are five elements to success.

The first element is the power of a vision.

When Azzi first played basketball at Stanford as a freshman, there were almost no fans at her games; this was a big change from the 10,000 people who would watch her play in high school in Tennessee. She did not sulk or complain about the absence of support. Her team became its own marketing staff at Stanford.

One day, her head coach said to her, “I want you to look around and I want you to see this place sold out, full of fans. And I want you to picture us winning a national championship by your senior year. Can you do that?”

“Sure, why not?” Azzi replied.

Within three years, her team was selling out every home game, outdrawing the men’s team, and she did win a national championship.

Azzi’s second key to success is taking action toward your vision.

The Stanford swimming coach came to Azzi’s team to give them a motivational talk. He had the team put signs up all over their locker room that said “Stanford National Champions.” He had them whisper the slogan to each other at practice and told them that this dream would not become a reality until they believed it.

This experience taught Azzi learned that “life doesn’t happen to us. We make life happen.”

Azzi’s third step to ultimate success is embracing obstacles, not just overcoming them.

She spoke of Michael Jordan and how he was cut from his high school basketball team during his sophomore year.

“If that hadn’t happened to him, would he have worked as hard?” she asked the audience.

The fourth Azzi-ism is creating partnerships.

She spoke of the friendships she created with her fellow teammates and how they all helped each other out during emotional times in practice.

The fifth element: a leader will enable greatness in everyone.

Through sports, Azzi learned that it didn’t matter where you play on the court.

“Own your role and be proud of it. You’re just as important as everyone else,” she said.

Before Azzi ever played for the Olympic team, she was used to being starter. On the ’96 squad she was a role player.

“All I needed to hear is that I was valued for what I had to bring to the situation,” she said.

She applied this philosophy to the business world and said that everybody is going to perform to the best of their ability if they feel like they are appreciated.

She closed her speech with an analogy about the redwood trees of California. She discussed how the trees grow to be hundreds of feet tall, yet their root systems are only about six feet deep. The roots interlock in order to support mutual growth. She said that the redwood root system is how people should build their lives.

“Leaders understand the interlocking nature of their teams and of the people that are in their organizations. We all soar higher when we work together.”

Azzi allowed for a 15-minute question-and-answer period after her speech and the audience members were eager with inquiries.

When asked why the WNBA continues its struggle to create a loyal fan base, she said, “Unfortunately, men want to see dunking.”

One student asked Azzi to elaborate on the leadership edge. Azzi said there are many outside pressures on young people to be stars.

“America is the land of ‘American Idol,’” she said.

She said that her five steps are to help people lead collaboratively. “When you can really build a group and build a team and be a part of that every single day, that is a wonderful experience,” Azzi said.

After the speech, Bobak Khamsehi, an environmental engineering grad student, said he enjoyed Azzi’s lecture.

“We really need this in life. We need the unification for the whole globe, not only here in the United States,” Khameshi said of Azzi’s five steps.

Anderson appreciated Azzi’s five steps to success. “I think it was very motivational. She talked a lot about leadership and it really applied to me. I want to see what I can do to best help out our team.”

Azzi said she loved the weather and energy of San Luis Obispo. She added, “I found that people are so incredibly kind here . It seems like a great environment to be in, to go to school here. You just kind of have it all.”

She said Cal Poly students “really want to do something good, affect other people’s lives and change the world.

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